The women of Bangladeshi sweatshops

Chart tracking growth in the number of garment factory workers in Bangladesh, 1985-2012; European retailers have said they will sign a safety pact for garment factories, and the Bangladesh government said it will raise worker wages and allow them to unionize. MCT 2013

Chart tracking growth in the number of garment factory workers in Bangladesh, 1985-2012; European retailers have said they will sign a safety pact for garment factories, and the Bangladesh government said it will raise worker wages and allow them to unionize. MCT 2013

Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated and impoverished countries. To put its size into perspective, the country is only slightly smaller than Iowa, but has the 9th largest population in the world of 166,280,712. The country is situated between India and Burma, and deals with many of the same issues these countries do, including poverty, sanitation, and health.

Introduction

In a rapidly growing economy, the garment industry has become one of Bangladesh’s largest industries, and is now second only to China in apparel exports. But this growing business has made news in recent years for the labor conditions the workers live in.

More than 4,800 factories and 3.5 million workers in the Bangladeshi garment industry, and women account for 85% of the textile work force. The garment industry accounts for 80% of Bangladesh’s export revenue and is the fourth largest exporter of garments in the world. Garment workers are paid approximately $37 a month in Bangladesh. However the living wage is 5,000 taka ($64 USD), and even with the wage increase employees will still  be living under a living wage, which would mean they can provide a home, food, and education for their families.

Conditions

The conditions that employees, most of whom are women, work in include long days and no days off. A common work day is 14-16 hours. Maternity leave is non-existent, and workers receive an average of two days off a month. The buildings are unsanitary, and rats are a frequent sight.

A worker inspects a burnt garment after a fire broke out at a garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 9, 2013. Shortly before midnight Wednesday, a fire swept through a garment factory in the capital Dhaka, killing eight people, including its managing director and a top police official. Initial reports suggested the fire in the 11-story building was caused by a short circuit on the second floor, which spread to the third and fourth floor where the factory was located.(Shariful Islam/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT)

A worker inspects a burnt garment after a fire broke out at a garment factory building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 9, 2013. Shortly before midnight Wednesday, a fire swept through a garment factory in the capital Dhaka, killing eight people, including its managing director and a top police official. Initial reports suggested the fire in the 11-story building was caused by a short circuit on the second floor, which spread to the third and fourth floor where the factory was located.(Shariful Islam/Xinhua/Zuma Press/MCT)

The factories these women work in have little to no ventilation, and because of this, they often catch fire. Many of the factories have no safety exits, and so in a fire like the one in November of 2012 that killed more than 100 people, many perish. Also, due to structural faults, some factories are subject to collapse. The Rana Plaza building near Dhaka collapsed in April 2013 and killing over 1,000 people, and leaving 2,500 injured.

Both of these incident brought international attention to the conditions sweatshop workers are in day-to-day, as well as shedding light on many brands who use sweatshop labor to produce their clothing. In the Rana Plaza building collapse, clothing from the Spanish brand Mango and British chain Primark, in addition to others.

Change

Following these incidents, labor rights groups have pointed out that it all starts with the companies who use sweatshops to produce their products. There have been campaigns from groups such as The International Labor Rights Forum, Solidarity Center, the National Garment Workers Federation, and many others to force companies to make changes in the factories they send their products to, including making work days shorter and increasing wages, as well as providing a safe environment for employees.

There have been positive results from these campaigns as well. In November of this year, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights reported the changes retailer H&M made at their factories. These changes included decreasing overtime hours giving workers Fridays and national holidays off, making sure all hours were recorded and paid correctly, and pregnant women workers were paid their correct maternity leave. The Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights also encouraged some of Bangladesh’s largest apparel producers, including Next Collections, That’s It Sportswear and the entire Ha-Meem Group to make changes in their factories.

There is hope for the garment workers of Bangladesh, and if the work of activist groups and international citizens continue, there many drastic change in the coming years.

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